Today’s Soup (French Onion)
Julianaa Satie – The Natural Cook®
I welcome the challenge of making this traditionally beef-based soup with only plant-based ingredients. The magic is in technique. The ritual demands my presence each time I make it.
Large yellow onions with the deepest color, thickest skin, firmest bulb make this a great soup. On my cutting board they remind me of tough maple leaves turning red and gold. One onion feeds three. Need to sharpen my knife to make paper thin, slivers. These onions aren’t stored in a refrigerator; they stay strong that way.
Begin: wash the onions well enough to use the skin in stock. Careful: score the top to separate the skin from the bulb. Control: don’t let the knife cut into the leaf or the root end. Memories of my handsome farmer friend make my hands take care with the knife. “Be kind to the tail of an onion” was his message. “Onions will make you cry if you cut into them ruthlessly.” Since then, over 40 years ago, I enter an onion in ritual, not cutting into it before it is time. Eight, plump, half rounds face me while the cut is face down on the cutting board.
The knife slides forward, tight against my claw hand knuckle, while the pot is warming. My delicious soup pot is heavy steel and porcelain, ready to hold four large onions in paper thin slivers, 3 layers of fine spanish olive oil, and it is full to the top. Long cooking chop sticks loosen the slivered onions and respectfully turn them into the oil. Cover. Thirty minutes later, the pot is half full. Oil and warm steel melts each sliver shifting the juicy onion cells from pungent to sweet. Moisture goes deep into the onions as they cook from a twelve layer heap to four. When the pot is one quarter full the cover comes off and herb/spice thyme, fresh garlic, and fresh rosemary are stirred in. An hour later, stirring a few times to keep the metal touching the onions, the stock is ready too.
Brilliant onion skins have steeped for 3 – 5 minutes in a hot herb/stock. Today I caught it just in time. Over cooked-steeped onion skins is the one thing that can ruin my soup. Such bitterness overtakes the importance of the color gained from gold skins. And it is an overwhelming, non fixable, disaster when the skins cook too long. Strain it fast!
Onions are now ready to stir every 60 seconds. The concentration is down to one lush layer, an eighth of the once full pot. Once white, clear, elegant onions are now rich radiant amber, might be called caramel “liquid gold”. Ever – so – sweet onions and herbs build flavor and reduce to one layer. The taste is yum and I go look for a red wine to pull up the caramelization on the bottom of the pot into the soup. Taste/smell tells me the Syrah from Chili wins. Now, stirring every 30 seconds, awaiting the dry, moist, paste-like onion to concentrate at the bottom of the pot, I’m practically scrubbing the floor surface with my bamboo rice paddle.
A mushroom color hints that they would be good with this soup. Maybe I should put my mushroom hunter’s specimens in the stock. Not today. It is simply yum! I little wine plus good water brings the substance to where the onion slivers began. Sea salt and tamari to fit, bay leaf and touch of fresh ground black pepper, Done ! Now it cooks in a slow boil.
This little soup stops my breath. No conversation can pull my attention away from this extraordinary experience of transformation. So profoundly simple. Equally deep in flavor, taste, color, and satisfaction.